Weed control - firms under pressure

Specialist weed control firms not only face fewer council contracts, but tenders that prioritise price over quality, reports Hannah Jordan.

Many local authorities are scaling back weed control and emphasising price in contracts - image: Alamy
Many local authorities are scaling back weed control and emphasising price in contracts - image: Alamy

A recent consultation carried out by the Amenity Forum revealed, somewhat unsurprisingly given the bleak economic outlook, that local authorities and other contracting organisations are scaling back their weed control regimes and, in some cases, cutting them completely.

The need to find savings means that many councils are reducing their spraying rotas from three or four times annually to just once or twice, while others are experimenting with alternative, chemical-free methods or reactive approaches where weeding is done only when deemed necessary.

Specialist contractors are reporting not only fewer opportunities on the horizon but a declining number of hours attached to new contracts. Leicestershire-based LanGuard Vegetation Management has reduced its headcount by almost a third in the past year. Its director Will Kay says he understands that councils have to find savings but claims reducing weed control is a false economy. "Just treating weeds when the need arises is more expensive - it's fire-fighting," he says.

"In the long term, this is going to cost councils. Once there are more weeds, it takes longer and more chemicals to get rid of it all; and a build-up of detritus damages the infrastructure of the highways and footpaths."

Greater competition

Specialist operators need to consider offering other services to fill the downtime and compete with the larger, multidiscipline companies, Kay argues. "We are having to diversify just like everyone else, so we are looking at tree work and mechanical vegetation clearance, among other things. We are simply trying to remain in business."

Industrial and amenity weed-control company Weedfree is also branching out into other areas, working on leaf and snow clearance and gritting, as well as training more employees in tree work. Contracts director Richard Stow says as well as there being fewer contracts around, price undercutting is making competition even tougher for many small and medium-sized companies.

The amenity sector, he explains, is rife with unregulated "one man, one van" traders who keep costs down by operating without the qualifications or assurance scheme memberships related to amenity pesticide spraying.

"The network of organisations in the UK that buys into the right processes is fantastic, but smaller contractors are struggling. They have to cover a lot of fixed overheads to run their firms to the required standards and they are competing directly with the cowboys who just don't care about that.

"Organisations need to know they can't just pass the buck when it comes to maintaining our infrastructure. They need to specify that the people they work with are qualified."

But Stow adds that policing in the sector is ineffective. "Smaller service providers who cut corners on work for small contracts use the unregulated operators that go under the radar. Those contractors are never going to get themselves regulated. Policing only works for the big organisations to ensure they are doing things right. The problem is the next level down where smaller firms have no idea of the rules and regulations."

Complete Weed Control franchisee Simon Catchpole agrees that the industry only polices those that choose to be policed. "Until that is addressed, there is always going to be an opportunity for others to come along who don't sign up to quality standards and will do the job in the cheapest possible way," he says. There should be more people responsible for monitoring contractors and ensuring that health and safety standards are being met, he feels. "Issues are raised only when something goes wrong and that is a problem."

Safety second?

Health and safety among pesticide operators is another issue highlighted by the Amenity Forum's research as causing real concern among operators. Reports from forum members show a growing trend for councils to rewrite their tender documents with price being given a clear priority over standards and delivery. Alarmingly, a few respondents reported no mention of the words "health" and "safety" in their latest contracts.

Coventry City Council is one local authority rewriting its tender documents and, according to its street scene and greenspace support and project officer Dave Hearn, they are likely to be price-driven. "But before contractors can even tender they have to comply with health and safety standards. We are concerned with both aspects, not just price," he insists.

Hearn explains that because any contractor submitting a tender must first be registered with the Contractors Health & Safety Assessment Scheme, the authority feels able to place greater emphasis on price.

Coventry is planning to reduced its weed control measures from a prescriptive three times a year to the reactive approach of spraying when necessary, and Hearn says this will work through strong partnerships with contractors.

"A four-stage standard for weeds will show our contractors what is acceptable and what is the minimum standard they have to achieve. Local authorities really need to work with their contractors and give them clearly defined guidelines so confusion and complacency can be avoided," he adds.

Neil Huck, senior contracts manager at grounds maintenance company Ground Control, says well-written contracts give all parties a greater sense of security. "It's about changing mindsets, so it's not so much about them and us but more of a partnership. Working together on long-term contracts will let contractors plan for 10 years instead of three and invest more in their business and training."

Huck feels that unless both clients and contractors operate the correct level of training, underqualified operators could be awarded contracts that have insufficient specifications. "There is a trend for local authorities to rely on generalist staff to run their maintenance packages, so there is no specialist service knowledge. Both contractors and clients need to be trained fully so they know what they are doing or we will end up with contractors having all the expertise."

The concern is shared by Amenity Forum chair John Moverley. "Some of the people who are responsible for tendering out the work appear not to have the knowledge and understanding to accurately assess the situation. They are awarding contracts to people who don't have the qualifications or experience to deliver a full and safe service, and that is a real worry," he says.

Moverley says the amenity sector's diversity allows many rogue traders to operate unlicensed and unnoticed. He wants to see contracts awarded to only those operators that have the necessary qualifications and are registered with a best practice assurance scheme, such as the Amenity Assurance Scheme offered by BASIS.

"If an award goes to contractors that aren't qualified, there is a danger that an inadequate job will be done. If the wrong chemical is used in the wrong place, it not only backfires on the authority or the organisation that is doing it but it really doesn't help the sector as a whole," he argues.

Certification blow from Europe

Moverley's aspiration for widespread certification compliance could be undermined next month by the Sustainable Use Directive (SUD). Passed in 2009 and due to come into effect in the UK at the end of November, the EU legislation sets out guidelines for the use of pesticides.

The current wording of the SUD says member states must "provide access" to training - it does not insist that operators and advisers be actually certified and trained. If the directive is simply transposed into UK law, it would undermine existing certification and training requirements.

Following fierce lobbying by the Amenity Forum, the Chemical Regulations Directorate has said it will make an announcement on the issue in the coming weeks. Moverley says: "We can only hope that the Government has the sense not to take what we consider a massive backward step in the standards and training requirements we in the amenity sector have fought so hard to achieve."

Amenity Forum makes the case for quality

"We all want to see inefficiency taken out, but this must not be done to the detriment of the contractor and certainly not to the quality of work," says forum chair Professor John Moverley. "This increased emphasis on cost reduces the focus on standards and could have a negative impact on health and safety, which the forum has worked so hard to advocate. We want those awarding contracts to ensure that they maintain standards and only use contractors that have the appropriate training and qualifications."

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